Otaku Queer: Love Live! Sunshine!!

Welcome to another installment of Otaku Queer, were we look at various queer and queer coded characters in anime, manga, Japanese games and all the like! Today, the topic is Love Live Sunshine, as in the entire show. Every character in this show is so ridiculously gay or gay coded that focusing on just one character wouldn't really do the show justice. In particular, I'll be talking about how the show try to appease both queer fans and the usual otaku lot, and the advantages and problems this approach brings.

Sunshine is the second Love Live series, and I'm sure not the last with its popularity. Love Live is Sunrise's stab at the anime idol market, and one of the biggest franchises in anime currently, showing no sign of slowing. It's also kind of famous for an unusually large fanbase of gay and bi women. I say “unusually” because this franchise has become the big Sunrise cash cow that managed to take Idolmaster down a peg. However, it does it with almost not a single male character to be seen, going against a lot of conventional industry wisdom. It's not a harem series at all, just a really well done sitcomish series about a group of nine girls chasing after a goal and having fun along the way. On paper, nothing about the series seems to scream big hit, but there's a lot under the surface. The fantastic direction is one element, but one of the most important parts of the equation is purposeful coding the main cast as gay.

Idolmaster never really got the same sort of crowd as Love Live did, mainly because it started trying to appeal to the usual crowd of straight otaku guys. While it's toned down more in the franchise nowadays, especially the recent anime, the games still have that vibe that the main audience hasn't changed too much. It also tends to code all the girls as bi now, which is perfectly fine in many ways, but doesn't give it the same magic appeal Love Live has (plus they have so many loli characters these days what even). Idolmaster also aims for sheer variety, while Love Live chooses to instead focus on a core cast every series and develop them and the relationships between them. Mainly the gay relationships between them. There's a LOT of gay in this franchise.

The original Love Live anime had a bit of this, but Sunshine really goes all out to the point there are moments that can't really be counted as subtext but outright text. To summarize, the nine girls in the cast are divided into three groups, based on what year of high school they're in. The first years are the eccentric chunibyo Yoshiko (or Yohane, her “fallen angel” persona), easily startled Ruby, and sheltered country girl (as in she has never seen a computer before) Hanamaru. The second years include leader and overly hyper Chika, the ever dependable You, and an exchange student and piano player named Riko. The third years round out with the level headed diver Kanan, school council president and closet idol fangirl Dia, and the rich, half-Italian Mari. This set up gives each year a different sort of energy so it's initially easy to keep track of who is who (first years have insecurities, second years are confused of what they want to do, and all the third years have different styles of authority over the others), and then allows the show to expand on everyone's traits and lets them bounce off each other.

It's a welcome change from Idolmaster's focus on archetypes, as Love Live characters either lack clearly visible archetypes or defy theirs in some way, which also allows for more interesting character dynamics. There's something funny about seeing new unexpected sides to all of these characters, like the seemingly normal Riko being a closet yuri fan and freaking out at Loony Tunes levels around dogs, or Dia revealing herself to be a giant nerd who obsesses over her sister and insults people who know less about idols then her. It allows comedy to go all over the place, but the same also applies for drama. Seemingly comedic characters also have their own problems to deal with, and those problems explode out as drama bombs.

While the first years have their arcs handled mostly during an episode focused on them early on, the second and third years each get arcs that run through the season, and most of those arcs are based around relationships. And yes, this is where we finally hit the gay talk. Love Live's whole thing is playing up both comedy and drama in extreme ways, even when they're of mundane subjects. It's also pretty good at it. Episode three in Sunshine is one of the series strongest episodes just for the performance the second years give to the town, as the scene keeps tossing wrenches out and the actresses really give it their all to sell the emotion the characters are going through. But Sunshine is also more notable than the original series because it dives far deeper in relationships between characters that go beyond close friendships.

First off, the drama between the third years is presented as them recovering from the trauma of a failed performance, but it's actually a spat caused by complete miscommunication between Kanan and Mari. Kanan originally quit trying to be an idol when she was a first year because Mari was willing to give up studying abroad for their group, and Kanan couldn't let her do it. Eventually the two make up and regain what they lost two years ago. That being girlfriends. It's never said out-loud, but it's framed exactly this way, with a song about about rekindling a lost relationship and a ridiculously over the top make up scene with a lot of tears and hugging. Plus Mari constantly rubs her head up against Kanan's boobs so there's that.

The second years also have love triangle drama. Chika and Riko are constantly hinted to be falling for each other by the show itself (THEY CONNECT HANDS FROM ACROSS THEIR SECOND FLOOR HOMES UNDER THE STARS), and it eventually leads to Riko saying to Chika that she loves her. You starts to pick up on their closer connection and starts to feel like she's losing her connection to Chika, who's she's always wanted to do something with. She also has three different love confession fantasies and Riko is a huge fan of girls love works so there's also that and that.

What's interesting about all this is that the show frames it all in just the right way so that it's not clearly saying the characters are gay. I mean, it's insanely obvious, but there's always a bit of the context that doesn't seem to match usual romantic scenes. Mari's homosexuality can be written off as a joke (similar to Nozomi in the first series) because her sexuality is used entirely for gags. The second year stuff also makes it a bit vague to the average viewer, as Riko and Chika never show any changes in their dynamic after this confession, and You's fantasies only have one that clearly show interest beyond friendship, while the other two focus on her frustration of feeling left behind. The one that's clearly gay is also another joke, so it easily goes over a lot of people's heads.

Love Live's origins suggest it was originally going to be a more overt yuri series, but both anime tend to downplay these elements significantly for mass appeal. However, it has also lead to the series gaining a strong core queer fanbase alongside the usual otaku one, managing to appease everyone in some way. That's great business, and a good trend for anime becoming more inclusive and friendly to queer characters and works ...except because the series veils the queer elements in jokes and subtext, not a lot of people actually realize (or refuse to realize) how gay the series really is. Fandom for this series tends to get really messy when the homophobic crowd comes in, and while we're getting clearly queer characters in one of the biggest franchises in anime, we're in a situation where most people don't even realize it.

Love Live using jokes to hide queerness is nothing new. For example, a lot of people were genuinely surprised to find out that Deadpool was pansexual, despite all his constant gay jokes. It's because he's a comedic character that people tend not to take these jokes as a sign of his sexuality because why bother taking jokes seriously? When comedy is the main expression of sexuality, then it's harder to take the signs more seriously. The sheer drench of queer stereotypes in the entertainment world has conditioned people to not see queer characters when queer characters are being funny in a queer way, but simple punchlines related to a long dead joke. It's a huge problem that we're just now starting to overcome.

So what's going on here is that we are getting a series about lesbian characters, but this is being covered a little for the sake of marketing. Yuri fails to sale in big numbers in Japan, so not too many bother to pursue the genre in a serious manner, which tends to hurt chances at seeing queer girls in other works without them being overtly sexualized (ie Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid). Love Live Sunshine is probably the best we can get right now, which is kind of depressing. It's a show that can't even be up front about what it is, and that is endlessly frustrating. But it can also be seen as a stepping stone towards a show that's more openly queer for larger audiences. The series itself is great, but what it means for anime as time goes on is hard to say.

Also You is the best girl and should go date Yohane fight me nerds.


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